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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Why it is So Hard to Explain What Makes Your School Unique

I’ve said it before, but we live in an age where all schools tend to look the same. In fact, if you are a prospective parent, choosing a school in a location that offers a range of options is no easy task.

One might even go as far as saying that it can sometimes be as challenging as a person with achromatopsia (total colour blindness) trying to distinguish between red, green, and blue. To those on the outside, every school just looks a different shade of grey.

And if you are not yet convinced, allow me to illustrate the point by listing five headlines that I lifted from the home page of five different schools in the same capital city.

What are the skills your child will need to shape the digital age? Preparing students to thrive in an ever-changing world. Creating a world of opportunity. Igniting the spark of genius in every child. When they graduate, our students are ready for anything.

Individually, each of these headlines may well be a true and accurate description of the school to which they refer. Yet, if we put ourselves for just one moment in the shoes of the prospective family, we may start to realise just how difficult it is for them to properly distinguish between one school and another.

So why is it so hard to explain what makes our schools unique?

In her book, The Umami Strategy: Stand out by mixing business with experience design, Aga Szóstek provides a clue to answering this important question by turning her attention to the concept of “umami” in Japanese cooking. Umami, she says:

…is the fifth flavour that joins sweet, sour, salty and bitter, and elevates them to the next level. This is why so many people love pizza with its blend of tomatoes, mushrooms and parmesan cheese - seductive, potent and full of umami. This is the missing piece, the next level, the fifth element of yum.

A photograph of many rows of green chairs and a single yellow chair

Applying this to the world of business, Szóstek suggests that too often companies “stop at the four basic elements deemed to be strategic: business, product, customers and employees” and, in doing so, fail to define their umami: the secret sauce that can take the offering “all the way from adequate to unforgettable.”

In schools, I would suggest, the same principle applies. There are the “traditional” elements (tastes) of the academic programme, the range of extra-curricular opportunities, campus resources, and the professionalism of the faculty. Each of these elements is undoubtedly key to providing an adequate or good-enough education. Yet, if we stop there we fail to capture and communicate the umami experience that is our own unique combination of these elements into one unforgettable experience of school.

So what does this mean for those of us charged with the task of helping our schools stand out in the crowd? Whilst I recommend a deep dive into Szóstek’s comprehensive analysis, allow me to draw out three guiding principles from my own reading of The Umami Strategy.

  1. Determine the students that your school is really for. We can all too easily fall into the trap of believing that our school is for “everybody”. But Szóstek makes it clear that “nobody wants to be average” and that “we are far more inclined to choose aspirational brands than we are those that are for ‘everybody’”. Determining our umami, in other words, is integrally linked to the task of identifying, with a degree of precision, who is going to like the unique “flavour” of our school.

  2. Define your “edges” with an eye on the competition. According to Szóstek, “edges” represent the lines that frame and define the unique experience of our school. But in determining what makes us different, she says, we should absolutely “avoid edges that your competition is already excelling at.” Referencing Seth Godin’s Purple Cow, she adds, “nobody is excited by the same but a little bit better.” So, if our schools are going to stand out in an already overcrowded market, we should have the courage to find an “edge” that is different rather than more of the same.

  3. Develop a set of umami metrics. Companies, says Szóstek, tend to measure themselves against the basic elements, rather than their umami. The same can be said of schools. We rightly focus on measures of academic achievement, but rarely take the additional step to develop tools that help us measure the extent to which we are preserving and improving the experience that is our umami. For Szóstek, this work “is tough because it requires both staying visionary and analytical and precise thinking at the same time.” And yet, she concludes, it is perhaps some of the most important work that we ever do.

At the end of her book, Szóstek challenges her readers with a question: What kind of outlier would you like to become? It’s another way of asking, I suggest, What is going to make your school unique? And perhaps the answer lies in taking the time to reflect on who our schools are really for, where our edges lie, and how we will measure ourselves against an ambitious vision that is uniquely ours.

Answer these questions and we may just discover a path that leads us “all the way from adequate to unforgettable”.



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